Happy GURPSDay, gamers of the world! Get out there and devour the mountains of GURPS goodness now ready for consumption!
Today’s Game Geekery post isn’t exclusively GURPS, but rather a waxing nostalgic of some of my favorite RPG moments from TV and movies over the years. This means they are predominantly D&D, naturally, but there’s a couple of GURPS moments in there too. Couldn’t leave my people behind!
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
I don’t know if this was the first showing (sorry, embedding disabled) of a group playing an RPG in a mainstream film, but it sure is the first one I remember. I had only discovered D&D a few months before, but it had already consumed nearly every waking moment of my young, nerdy life (I say “nearly” because I still had room for “Star Wars,” of course… I wasn’t a total savage!)
I sat in the theater for “E.T.,” the lights went down, and then not even ten minutes in there’s a group of kids my age, playing my game, in the biggest movie of the summer. It only confirmed what I already knew… that RPGs would obviously become The Biggest Thing Ever, bigger than books, movies, and TV combined. Who wouldn’t love these new games once they’d tried them? Kids would play them, adults would play them, and they would completely transform how society saw entertainment and imagination.
My 14-year-old self was partially right, but the revolution was much more subtle.
Mom: “So, how do you win this game, anyway?”
Kid: “There’s no winning, it’s like life. You don’t win at life.”
Mazes and Monsters (1982) / The Dungeon Master (1984)
Okay, I know there’s a lot of hate for “Mazes and Monsters,” but I kind of love it. It’s cheesy, it suffers all the usual pitfalls of a sensationalized, over-dramaticized made-for-TV movie… but it also has some very sweet moments of genuine emotion, and it’s all set against the backdrop of a group of RPG players — in college this time! — who really, really dig the game. (It also didn’t hurt that one of them was the dynamic Kate Finch, female players still being a rarity in my circles.)
Sure, the plot hinges on one of those players having a psychotic break while playing the game, but I naively never took that as a condemnation of the game itself. I mean, a predisposed mind could have a psychotic break eating corn on the cob, but there’s no lobby for cob blaming, right? It would still be a year or two before I became aware, personally, of the fringe elements blaming D&D for suicides, murders, and the tearing asunder of all things good in the world.
It did lead to a few awkward conversations here and there after it aired, people asking if it really made you crazy and the like, but at least for me locally that died down pretty quickly.
To this day, I find the ending heartbreaking. The other players save their delusional friend before he can kill himself, and he is reunited with his family. They come to visit him, believing he has recovered, only to find him forever lost. Together, they have one final adventure.
Kate: “And so we played the game until the sun began to set, and all the monsters were dead.”
I also include the book “The Dungeon Master” here, even though it would be many years before I read it, as it tells the real life story of James Dallas Egbert III, a very troubled young man whose disappearance and fondness for D&D became fodder for the “Mazes and Monsters” book and movie. Its ending is even more heartbreaking than the film’s, since he was an actual person, but I still recommend the book, it’s a gripping read. Not really much about RPGs, more like “RPG-adjacent.”
D&D Cartoon (1983 – 1985)
It was corny. It was mostly silly. But, it was Dungeons & Dragons! And it was on TV every week! The only real stinker, in my worldly 15-year-old view, was Uni, who I thought should have been sacrificed to the first monster the party met.
Everyone I knew watched this thing, and versions of Hank’s bow were suddenly everywhere. And Bullywugs, ’cause… why not?
Dungeon Master: “<always something, something>, the choice… is yours!” (See? DM was a sandboxer.)
Cloak & Dagger (1984)
Okay, this is a really quirky, really odd movie. For starters, it could never be made today. The plot centers around an 11-year-old boy (the E.T. kid again!) who is obsessed with a tabletop RPG and video game called “Cloak & Dagger” where you pretend to be a spy. Then at some point, real world military secrets fall into his hands, and all these creepy adults start trying to straight up murder him and his little girl buddy to get them back, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.
Oh, yeah, and the kid’s favorite character, Jack Flack, convinces him to pull the trigger on a would-be assassin (at least he kills in self-defense, but sheesh, I’m glad I don’t have Dabney Coleman’s therapy bills for lil Davey).
Despite being a film about a little kid and his homicidal imaginary friend, I still love this train wreck. Plus, you get both an RPG and an Atari cartridge as plot points in one movie — a twofer!
Davey: “How’d you escape?”
Dad: “Jack Flack always escapes.”
Davey: “I don’t need him anymore. I’ve got you, Dad.”
60 Minutes, “Dungeons & Dragons” (1985)
Ah, yes, the infamous Gary Gygax interview on “60 Minutes.” He handles himself pretty well… for the most part, he just seems completely baffled (and rightly so) by how something so blatantly ridiculous as the accusations against his game made their way all the way to a segment on a national news show.
Mostly, watching this just makes me sad. Some of these people lost their children to suicide, and they just can’t bring themselves to bear the thought it was because they were terrible parents or their kids were drug-addled or whatever. They’re desperate for a scapegoat, so it must be that game with the funny looking covers. Ugh.
Dr. Rybicki, an actual psychologist: “For instance, one case, the parents were actually– saw their child summon Dungeons & Dragons demons into his room before he killed himself.”
X-Files, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” (1996)
Okay, this is kind of a cheat because this “X-Files” episode really has nothing to do with RPGs. But one character has a wonderful D&D quote, one that I really like, so it makes the list (plus, I love X-Files, so there).
Blaine: “Well, hey, I didn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage.”
Dexter’s Laboratory, “D&DD” (1997)
A great episode of a funny show (no embed). Dexter runs a Dungeons & Dragons game — oh, sorry, “Monsters & Mazes” — for some of his little cartoon buddies (and cheats the entire time to feed his massive ego). When his sister Dee Dee takes over as GM, things just get silly. A fun way to kill 11 minutes!
Players: “You dare defy her whims? She’s the Game Master! She controls your fate!”
Freaks and Geeks, “Discos & Dragons” (2000)
This is arguably my favorite clip of them all. Maybe it’s because I loved this show and its characters, maybe it’s wish fulfillment of getting one of the older, cooler kids to join the geeky freshman game, maybe it’s because it shows that gaming really is for everybody and there shouldn’t be gatekeepers or cliques in it. Whatever the reason, it’s in my YouTube favorites and I watch it all the time.
Sam: “We sit around and crack jokes and eat junk food all night, while we’re fighting dragons and saving princesses and stuff. It’s pretty fun.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Chosen” (finale, 2003)
I consider “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” one of the greatest shows of all time. So, getting some of that chocolate in the D&D peanut butter? I couldn’t ask for a better pairing. Sure, it’s just a quick scene, but it’s endearing and charming and I love it. I wasn’t able to find it anywhere online, but if you have Netflix, all seasons of “Buffy” are streaming there — it starts at 21:00 minutes in Episode 22 of Season 7 (“The Chosen,” series finale).
Basically, it is the eve of the apocalypse and some of the Buffy crew, having already finished their tasks to prepare for the final battle over evil, seek to distract themselves with a little D&D since they can’t sleep anyway. It’s lovely.
Andrew: “Adios to 5 hit points, Trogdor has badly wounded you.”
Giles: “Wait a minute, what about my, uh… bag of illusions?”
Andrew: (scoffs) “Illusions against a Burninator? Silly, silly British man.”
Community, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (2010),
“Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (2011)
Another wonderful comedy! I’d put the Paintball episodes slightly higher, but these two episodes where the Community gang all get together to play AD&D are really, really fun. The show creator, Dan Harmon, also created the glorious and sublime “Rick and Morty” and “HarmonQuest,” a comedy D&D show. His gamer stripes run deep, and it shows in these episodes.
Abed: “In about 13 turns, [Pierce] will die of exposure. Jeff?”
Jeff: “I wait 14 turns.”
Stranger Things (2016)
I didn’t really expect to like “Stranger Things,” and delayed watching it for quite a bit, but then found I really did like it, and the fact that the main characters all loved the ol’ D&D had a lot to do with that. As kids in the ’80s, I would have identified with them anyway… but by making them gamers, we were instantly best buds.
Mike: “Mom, we’re in the middle of a campaign!”
Mom: “You mean the end? 15 after.”
Mike: “No! Mom, wait, just 20 more minutes… I’m serious, Mom. The campaign took two weeks to plan. How was I supposed to know it was gonna take 10 hours?”
Mom: “You’ve been playing for 10 hours?”
It’s like they had a microphone in my boyhood kitchen!
And… the GURPS!
Finally, not to be left out, a bit of GURPS love before I sign off.
The first is Thomas Middleditch, lead on the very funny “Silicon Valley.” I love the show, and his performance as the beleaguered Richard Hendricks is hysterical, so I was super happy when I learned he is One Of Us.
I think our biggest celebrity GURPSer, though, is the nigh-ubiquitous and beloved… George R.R. Martin himself, creator of the wonderfully dark and grim “Game of Thrones.”
So, there you have it, folks, some of my favorite media moments of RPG. A few didn’t quite make the cut — “The IT Crowd,” “Big Bang Theory” — and I’m sure there are many, many out there I’ve never even seen. What are some of your favorites? Share ’em in the comments!
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